I can't overstate the role that balance plays in E-V-E-R-Y aspect of healthy life. Balance is an active state in relationship to gravity. Gravity is the force that marks our transition from the uterus into the world. Our muscles learn how to be in relationship with gravity, and our vision, vestibular system, and proprioceptive sense work together to achieve equilibrium. The most advanced form of balance is complete stillness.
When we think of having problems with balance, though, we tend to think of falling down, being clumsy, struggling to ride a bike, etc. But the truth is that when balance is an underdeveloped skill (when vestibular input is either too little or too much, proprioceptive feedback is impeded, and/or the mediating cerebellum is immature), the effects are numerous and varied.
Maybe you or your child have struggles that you never knew were related to balance.
Impaired balance can cause problems with postural control and coordination, motion sickness, control of eye movements (yielding difficulty reading and other issues with visual perception), nausea and dizziness. These are the struggles apply specifically to the physical body in space.
Interestingly, balance is instrumental in cognitive operations in space such as conceiving of mathematical operations, personal orientation in space, directional awareness, reading a clock or compass, differentiating between left and right (including those pesky b and d, p and q letters).
Then there is the emotional aspect: "When control of balance is insecure, it affects more than simply physical stability; it awakens corresponding physical sensations and emotional feelings of uncertainty, doubt and awareness of risk in relation to falling and loss of control. If this continues through childhood into adult life it can predispose a person to suffer from anxiety, avoidant behaviour and, in extreme, the onset of 'secondary' neuroses such as panic disorder and agoraphobic tendencies." -Sally Goddard-Blythe
Balance has been linked to abnormal perception of hot and cold (Schilder), language processing (Barsch), dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention problems (Belgau, Levinson), reading and math skills (Kohn-Raz), and word association, mental imagery, error detection, judging time intervals, and rapidly shifting attention between sensory modalities (Lenier, Lenier, and Dow).
Children with static balance challenges must use the conscious mind to sit still. They do not have enough vestibular input to rely on its subconscious function like someone with a healthy vestibular system can. Their energy and effort are focused on keeping balance. (You can often tell who these kids are because they are either constantly in motion, or they sit with one leg tucked under their bottoms or with both feet wrapped around the chair leg.) "If they shift their concentration to what the teacher is saying, they immediately lose their balance and start moving around in their seat, appearing hyperactive...Thus their hyperactive behaviors stem from a problem with tonic muscle control caused by poor vestibular function." -Cheatum and Hammond
How much time is wasted and damage done to rectify these kinds of issues with a top-down approach? How many punishments or prescriptions have been wrongly administered?
In a future post, we will take a look at simple ways to fix these problems where they start. In the meantime, check your own balance abilities by standing on two feet (close together) with your eyes closed. How long can you do it without tilting or swaying? How long can you do it without compensating by tensing your muscles, locking your knees, or tightening your core?